No data, no funding. That’s just wrong.

The National Government recently announced that they will be requiring community organisations to hand over client information to the government to get funding. Services such as women’s refuges and budgeting agencies will have to share “client-level data” as a condition of funding. I’ve been hearing a lot of concerns about this. Social workers and counsellors are really worried that this will break down the relationship of trust they have with their clients.

I was at a national social services conference last week and Associate Professor Nicola Atwool reminded everyone that according to research the critical factor in determining the effectiveness of a service or intervention is the quality of the relationship. It’s not data, it’s not ticking boxes, or fancy formulas. It’s relationship.

Confidentiality is an absolute cornerstone of social work, budgeting, and counselling – with the caveat that you’ll be obliged to break confidentiality if you believe a person is a risk to themselves or someone else.

Today, I asked the Minister about this policy and first she replied saying it was all about getting great public services and then later it’s all about making sure people don’t fall through the cracks and get hurt.

The Minister’s safety concerns don’t really stack up. There is plenty of evidence of information having been shared or available in risky cases but because there wasn’t, for example, an understanding of the risk, the staff were too overworked, or there wasn’t trust between the agencies, people weren’t properly protected anyway. Women and children have been killed despite all the agencies having the information.

It’s also very worrying if the Minister is suggesting that someone turning up at refuge might go into the system and trigger a response somewhere else in the system, without her knowledge or agreement.

I understand there is greater pressure for sharing of this information, and that some sharing has been happening already. In the old days, we used to sit down with a woman and talk things through and find out what she needed. She/we would often involve other people but by the woman agreeing to this there was a much better chance of that being a helpful experience.

The Government isn’t being clear about what it’s intent is in making these changes. The community agencies aren’t being told what will happen with the information. This does make me wonder how clients will properly give consent if they’re not told exactly what will happen with the information.

What on earth will the government do with that level of individual data? Are they developing a computer system that will track every public and community service we engage with in the future? Will my RealMe file become a dossier of all the services and how much I’ve cost the State? It seems improbable that the Government will be even able to analyse all that individual data when it can’t even sign the community groups contracts and deliver the funding on time.

I once accessed counselling for a mental health issue. It took me a very long time to book that first appointment. It’s a scary thing to do just in itself, but I was also reluctant to go for help because I was worried that I would get a diagnosis that would follow me around for the rest of my life.  The thought of that information going wider, even if you’re given assurances of privacy, may well act as a barrier to some people getting the help they need.

How is someone who is doing something illegal in one sphere of their life, but wanting help in another sphere, going to feel about coming to get help from a community group? I thought the Government’s reforms were supposed to be targeting the most vulnerable (a concept I dispute). The people with the biggest challenges in life often have the worst experiences with government and subsequently the most fear of government.

The Green Party has developed a petition to the Minister asking the Government to stop making community groups hand over client’s information. Please sign and share.

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